Wednesday, July 10, 2019


Newman's Ancient Sage

Dear Mike,

I’d say there’s some special pleading when Newman quotes “the maxim of the ancient sage” in support of his gentlemanly ideal to "conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend.” Newman seems to be referring to Bias of Priene, one of the traditional seven sages of Greece. In a widely circulated maxim, Bias advised the opposite of what Newman said, namely to love our friends as though we will hate them in the future (φιλεῖν ὡς μισήσοντας, Diogenes Laertius, Bias 1.5 [87]). (From the context, I don’t think it’s likely that Newman had Pythagoras in mind, who advised his disciples to deal with each other so that they did not turn friends into enemies but enemies into friends, ἀλλήλοις θ᾽ ὁμιλεῖν, ὡς τοὺς μὲν φίλους ἐχθροὺς μὴ ποιῆσαι, τοὺς δ᾽ ἐχθροὺς φίλους ἐργάσασθαι, DL Pythagoras 8.1 [23].)

Aristotle cites Bias’ saying as true of old men, who love as though they are going to hate, and hate as though they are going to love: καὶ φιλοῦσιν ὡς μισήσοντες καὶ μισοῦσιν ὡς φιλήσοντες (Rhet. 1389b24-25). Scipio in Cicero’s De amicitia (16.59) was appalled by the sentiment and refused to believe Bias could have said such a thing. Aulus Gellius quotes it as a saying of Publilius Syrus (NA 17.14): ita amicum habeas posse ut facile fieri hunc inimicum putes.

David Konstan, Friendship in the Classical World (1997), p. 55 n. 3 cites a number of Greek instances of the saying. His conclusion — “Although the Greeks placed a high value on loyalty to friends, they recognized the relationship is mutable” — is far from Newman's love-your-enemy version of Greek wisdom.

Jebb, in an appendix to his Ajax commentary, has a nice note on the fortunes of Bias’ “famous maxim” in Bacon, Montaigne, and La Bruyère.

Ken [Haynes]

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